Various boycotts of Israel have sprung up in different places, unfortunately with very little effectiveness (so far) against the terrible policies of the Israeli government. But I just received this message via email from a friend, and this is a boycott which makes me think twice.

Sunday, October 26, 2008
Call to Boycott & Protest Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra US Concert Tour

Between now and November 16, 2008, the Israeli government-sponsored Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra will perform in fourteen American cities in California, Nevada, Arizona, Kansan, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan.

This would seem to be a good opportunity to nonviolently protest and raise awareness of the Palestinian calls for economic, cultural, and academic boycotts of Israel. A specific statement from the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee regarding the JSO concert tour is expected soon. Because the next concert is tomorrow night this notice is being issued as a stop-gap measure in the interest of time. Below is the concert schedule.

In the interest of space, I’ve deleted the rest, but here’s a link to the concert schedule if you happen to live in one of these states.

I do believe in the (eventual) effectiveness of boycotts, and I absolutely believe that if American funding to Israel was seriously threatened, the West Bank could be emptied of settlements in a week. But there’s some important background necessary on the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra which makes this boycott seem particularly ineffective.

First of all, the orchestra is not exactly “state sponsored.” Unfortunately, as we know, the Israeli government spends plenty of money on providing soldiers to guard illegal settlements in Palestine and financial incentives to Jews who want to live there. They spend billions on the most disgustingly unnecessary welfare system in the world, allowing the fathers of Haredi families with 17 children to study full-time at yeshivas while their wives take in mending. And they give money to all kinds of projects which further destroy the land and any chance of peace.

Unfortunately, what they don’t do is willingly support culture. The orchestra would not be able to survive on what the State of Israel gives them. The orchestra survives like many American cultural organizations – through donations. And their American tour has been entirely paid for by the American Friends of the JSO. A boycott of the orchestra has no financial impact on Israel whatsoever.

Perhaps the point is to boycott Israelis? Again, let’s take a look. The conductor is American, and is president of Bard College in New York, which, last I checked, was one of the “bastions of liberalism” we keep hearing about. The concertmistress is German, the librarian is Russian, and the orchestra is primarily made up of people who were not born in Israel. In fact, many are Russians who fled to Israel after they were allowed to leave, and are now treated almost as badly as they were in Russia. Even the music they are playing on tour was written by American Jews, not Israelis.

There are also a number of left-wing activists in the orchestra, who stand at checkpoints and pick olives and teach music to Palestinian children. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; artists have a tendency to care about human rights, and to express that care through their art.

The problem, of course, is that so few people know these facts. A protest outside of one of these theaters in the US will simply communicate to others that the boycott is against Israel and whatever it produces. And I’m aware that this is the message we want to get across.

So where is the balance between staging a protest which will effectively communicate to large numbers of people a simple message, like “Israel’s policies are unacceptable,” and recognizing the complexity of the truth behind the organization or people being protested?

My suggestion is this: if you live in or near any of the tour stops, absolutely organize or join a protest. Make sure your signs carry clear messages – music may play a role in healing the world, but not as long as Israel’s government keeps denying Palestinians their rights. All artists should have the right to travel and share their music, not only the ones that Israel allows to leave and return. And don’t be surprised if a few of the musicians come and join you.